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NATO is building a Ukraine-shaped future

Ukraine’s security is central to Europe’s present and future security. The mention of Ukraine on 45 occasions in the Vilnius Summit communiqué is a clear demonstration of this reality.

However, NATO’s members made a misstep at the summit in their handling of Ukraine’s future membership. And there is danger in the uncertainty as to the modalities and timetable for Ukraine’s accession to the alliance post-Vilnius.

In the communiqué, where clear and unambiguous wording was needed on Ukraine’s NATO accession, there was vapid text. This conveyed the impression of a NATO that is less than fully settled on a shared objective of Ukraine as its 33rd member state. 

The wording of the communiqué – ‘We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met’ – signalled the absence of a consensus on the future arrangements necessary to ensure Ukraine’s security, which will only come through NATO membership. 

European leaders, such as Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, sought to present a positive message on the collective NATO position. He stressed that there has been a shortening of the road to Ukraine’s accession (by removing the need for Ukraine to follow a Membership Action Plan) and further demonstration of the close nature of the Ukraine-NATO relationship through the holding of the NATO-Ukraine Council’s first meeting in Vilnius. It is true that formal steps for Ukraine’s NATO membership may be foreshortened, but the time duration for the journey has not been fixed. As the accession processes of Finland and Sweden demonstrated, compressed timetables for NATO membership can and should be the new normal. 

There is now an alliance embarked on a set of actions to respond to the European security disorder being pursued by Russia.

In not fixing a firm process for Ukraine’s accession to NATO there will likely be a renewed rehearsal of arguments for why a timetable for Ukraine’s NATO membership cannot be given. These crystalise around two issues. First, that the current condition of Ukraine makes immediate membership premature. The key substantive reason being that Ukraine cannot join the alliance while the war with Russia is still being conducted on its territory. This is an argument in support of the continuation of Russian policy since 2008 to keep countries outside the alliance by the use of arms or the threat of force on the territory of prospective members. A further reason given for a cautious approach to Ukraine’s alliance membership (and European Union accession) is that the country lacks a sufficiently robust political and legal system that are the underpinnings of NATO’s membership of democracies. However, gripped as it is by the current existential threat to its nationhood by the Putin regime’s policy to eviscerate its independence, the opportunity for Ukraine’s government to focus the requisite energy on consolidating a successful democracy can only come when it is integrated into the alliance. 

A second set of arguments for caution on Ukraine’s NATO accession is that it would provoke a Russian escalatory response. This is expressed as the fear that the Putin regime would resort to the use of nuclear weapons. This Russian nuclear threat is, however, the strongest motive to see Ukraine covered by NATO’s guarantee of nuclear deterrence. Acceptance of a proxy Russian veto on NATO accession, by the acceptance of the credibility of the Kremlin’s nuclear weapons threats, abrogates the responsibility to see nuclear deterrence maintained by facing down nuclear blackmail. 

The frustrations of the Ukrainian government with the formulation on future NATO membership agreed in Vilnius were clearly demonstrated in the public expressions of Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, on the lack of a timetable and the ‘vague wording about “conditions”’. 

Ukraine drives NATO’s future

The formula agreed for the Vilnius Summit communiqué papered over the cracks of political differences between NATO members and accommodated the more cautious approaches towards Ukraine’s membership of Germany and the United States. But the bulk of the decisions made in Vilnius foresees an alliance shaped by the nature of Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

In addition to the modest collective Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) through NATO, and the more substantive and meaningful direct member state military equipment support for Ukraine, as well as the measures taken to bolster NATO’s forward presence, there is now an alliance embarked on a set of actions to respond to the European security disorder being pursued by Russia. The invigoration of NATO’s focus on readiness and war fighting also creates a programme of work that will shape the capability and credibility of the alliance for decades to come. When Ukraine’s NATO accession takes place, its geography, wartime experience and capabilities will make it a lynchpin of the alliance’s plans for deterrence and war fighting. The size and shape of its armed forces will give it a prominence in NATO’s New Force Model and the plans for future force employment for deterrence and defence. 

Alongside the Finnish and prospective Swedish NATO accessions, Ukraine will be a key element of the dramatic reshaping of the NATO-Russia borders and whose collective capabilities and experiences should have an invigorating effect on all members of the alliance. Russia’s actions in spurring commitments to increase defence expenditure and the collective decision at Vilnius on a minimum of 2% of GDP defence spending will also create a rough and ready metric for the seriousness of alliance members’ intentions to be measured. 

Security commitments beyond NATO

NATO’s collective contortions on its approach towards membership for Ukraine facilitated a degree of innovation by another key international institution. The package of support announced by G7, including bilateral ‘security commitments’ for Ukraine, on the day following the Vilnius Summit communiqué, was a recognition of the centrality of meaningful arrangements for Ukraine’s security to European security. It has also brought the G7 into a new role in coordinating security guarantees for Ukraine. This has added to the G7’s role as a key forum (embracing North Atlantic, European and Indo-Pacific nation states) to marshal diplomatic support and coordinate international sanctions in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine.  

As the G7’s actions illustrate, Russia’s aggression has injected new political dynamics spurring innovations by the states and organisations seeking to counter the Kremlin’s attempted upending of the European security order. And it has placed Ukraine at the heart of Europe’s diplomatic and security architecture. Ukraine’s membership of Europe’s key political and security organisations is coming – if not quite fast enough. For advocates of a speedy accession for Ukraine to the alliance, sights will soon be set on next year’s NATO summit in Washington.

Prof. Richard G. Whitman is a Senior Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

Embedded image credit: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street (CC BY 2.0 cropped and overlaid)

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